Music review: London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Mark Elder does Elgar without a hint of tweediness.

The Kingdom - Elgar
The Barbican, 30 January

If Elgar's great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius doesn't quite begin with a whimper, it's certainly not with a worldly bang either. The orchestral Introduction - radiant and delicately exploratory questioning from the strings - already seems to have bridged the heavenly divide, to have made the journey together with the "alleluia from earth to heaven". Saturated in Newman's Roman Catholicism, Gerontius is the stuff of air, a work from beyond the veil; The Kingdom, by contrast, is all emphatic earth - a work that can gaze and reach upward, but whose feet of clay root it perpetually in the human.

The verdict of history has been with heaven, but a few champions (Sir Adrian Boult loudest of all) have claimed The Kingdom's right to sit alongside Gerontius among England's choral masterworks. As a work of national character it is arguably the greater, trading the Wagnerian influences of Gerontius for a distinctive musical vernacular. Not two bars of the Prelude, with its yearning flourish of strings and brass, pass before we are securely in Albion. Every musical device colours more vividly the landscape - the transient world of "dustceawung" (contemplation of dust) that has shaped Englishness from Anglo-Saxon lyric verse through Lycidas and of course Gray's "Elegy".

The danger of so much national fervour is that it can all too easily feel dated - the death-throes of a moustachioed relic, grasping after faith in an age of atheism. Thanks to Mark Elder and the generous virtuosity of the London Symphony Orchestra however, there wasn't a tweed-clad or jingoistic moment to be found. Big orchestral gestures (matched by big-voiced soloists and the might of the London Symphony Chorus) gave Elgar's expansive work the space and sincerity it needed to escape the snare of kitsch.

Pacing - so essential if the oratorio's meandering narrative through the New Testament is not to pall - was swift, Elder's articulate advocacy manifesting itself in quality of sound rather than any lingering over climax or melody. The part-writing of The Kingdom is astonishing, prefiguring the Symphony No. 1 that Elgar was shortly to produce. Here, in the Barbican's rather close acoustic, it retained its textural clarity while still providing structural blocks of primary colour - colour gilded by the justly-celebrated LSO horn section.

With illness doing its usual winter worst, soprano Susan Gritton was a late stand-in for Cheryl Barker, whose chest-infection had also spread to Stuart Skelton - singing, but with no small struggle. It was an interesting substitution; while Gritton possesses a sheen at the top of the voice that Barker lacks, there is a groundedness and focus to Barker's tone that I did miss, particularly through the more sustained passages and duet of Part II. It was in "The sun goeth down" however that Gritton's vocal shading and spun pianissimo came into their own, matched for fretful loveliness by leader Tomo Keller's solo line.

In recent appearances at English National Opera, Iain Paterson's particular gift for expression has been submerged, and so it was a delight to hear him in the role of Peter, coaxing line and phrase into ever more delicate contortion. "Repent and be baptised", with its first sung iteration of the climactic "in the name of Jesus Christ" theme, would have defeated even the most disenfranchised of Englishmen. Despite Skelton's illness, the pairing of these two voices made a persuasive case for ENO's forthcoming Parsifal in which they will take the roles of Parsifal and Amfortas.

Conceived as a continuation of The Apostles, with the possibility of a third and final work still hovering in its themes, The Kingdom glances both forward and back. Any performance of worth retains this sense of contingency, of an utterance in a silent dialogue. It's grounds for many to discount the work, but in the hands of Elder and Boult it is reconceived, reworked as a symbol of earthly faith - a gesture never freshly begun, nor ever fully completed, but necessarily and potently unfinished.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.